Bye Bye, Virginia Farmland - Hello, McDonalds?

Every 5 years, the Federal government conducts the Census of Agriculture, gathering statistics on every place from which "$1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold during the census year." George Washington conducted the first census, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (which conducts the modern census).

The census is completed in years that end with a 2 or a 7 - so 1997 is the most recent agricultural census available. In that year, the US Department of Agriculture assumed responsibility for the agricultural census, from the Bureau of Census.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services both publish information about farm production in Virginia. Looking at the agricultural statistics for selected Virginia counties is one way to identify the continued importance of agriculture in some portions of Virginia.

Urban Garden in Fairfax County
Urban Garden in Fairfax County

Today, relatively few Virginians have ever worked on a farm. More Virginians plant tomatoes and flowers in suburban gardens than earn a living from raising food or fiber on a commercial basis. Farmers near urban centers are able to supplement their income via "agri-tainment" (such as corn "mazes" and music festivals at "U-Pick" orchards) because urban residents consider it an unusual experience to visit a farm. Suburban gardeners still get a personal intellectual and emotional connection to the soil and experience the vagaries of the weather - but when there's a late frost, an August hailstorm, or an early freeze, Virginia farmers suffer a substantial economic loss as well.

Virginia had 41,095 farms in 1997, down over 2% from the 42,222 farms in 1992. The last dairy farm in Arlington County ceased operations in 1955.1

Nationwide, 19 other states had more farms than Virginia. Kentucky had twice as many farms compared to Virginia, and Tennessee had nearly the same number as Kentucky. North Carolina also had more farms than Virginia. (The census identified 1.9 million places nationwide that should have produced or sold $1,000 or more of agricultural products in 1997.)

Within the state, Rockingham County had 1,834 farms, making it #1 in Virginia and #56 in the country. Washington County was #2 in Virginia, with 1,744 farms. While Rockingham lost only 30 farms since 1992, Washington County lost 242 farms and dropped from #38 to #72 in national rank over those 5 years.

About half of Virginia is "rural." Table 2 in the 1997 National Resources Inventory identified the "land cover/use of nonfederal rural land" in Virginia:
Year Cropland CRP land Pastureland Rangeland Forest land Other rural land Total rural land
1982 3,397.6 0.0 3,249.6 0.0 13,455.8 617.8 20,720.8
1987 3,109.8 23.2 3,222.3 0.0 13,511.4 594.6 20,461.3
1992 2,901.5 74.0 3,206.9 0.0 13,460.7 588.1 20,231.2
1997 2,917.5 70.7 2,995.3 0.0 13,315.8 586.7 19,886.0
NOTE: acres are in 1,000's, so in 1982 Virginia had 3,397,600 acres of cropland

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is taking some marginal cropland out of production, reducing supply of some commdodities and stabilizing or increasing the price for such crops. The main benefit, however, is the reduction of sediment and nutrients washing off poor farmland and degrading the water quaity in nearby streams. The Commonwealth of Virginia supplements the Federal program with a state-sponsored Conservation Reserve Enhancement program (CREP), which is an essential part of the strategy to "save the bay."

In addition, Ducks Unlimited adds an additional supplement for environmental conservation projects such as fencing cattle out of streams. Farmers may not have to invest any of their capital to construct such systems, but they have to modify farm operations and maintain the facilities.

The number of acres used for forest land in Virginia changed little in those 15 years. However, 480,000 fewer acres were dedicated to growing crops (corn, wheat, etc.) in the 15 years between 1982 and 1997. That's a 14% decline. Over 250,000 fewer acres were used as pastureland, a decline of nearly 8%. 70,000 acres were set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program, but the land use changed substantially for over 660,000 acres in Virginia in those 15 years. look at the last column and you can see why - over 830,000 acres were converted from rural to urban/suburban use. The state's population grew 32% between 1980 and 2000, increasing from 5.3 to 7 million people in 20 years. Tthe sprawl of housing developments and roads further into the countryside changed the landscape of Virginia.

This land use conversion has been underway ever since mechanization and fertilization improvements have allowed farmers to achieve higher yields (more bushels per acre, more milk per cow, more white meat per chicken...) with less land and labor. Transportation improvements have also been a major factor - the Culpeper-Rappahannock Cooperative mill in Culpeper depends upon wheat shippen from the Northern Neck and corn from the Midwest, rather than just crops harvested locally. Appraisers determine the value of property based on its highest and best use, and farmland in Stafford and Fluvanna counties is often valued on its potential to become a subdivision rather than the potential profits from using the acreage to grow hay or corn.

The Acres of 1982 Prime Farmland Converted to Developed Land in 1997 shows the pattern was true for most of the United States east of the Mississippi River, except for Florida, Appalachia, the northern half of Michgan, and the far Northeast. Nationwide, in the 5 years between 1992 and 1997, the number of farms dopped less than 1%. The pattern of farming changed substantially, however. The tiny "Farms With Sales of Less Than $2,500" (where the owners obviously were not full-time farmers, but relied upon a regular job or other outside source of income) increased over 17%. All categories of farms with sales between $2,500 to $249,999 declined, but farms with sales greater than $250,000 all increased. The statiustics show clearly that, nationwide,agricultural production is continuing to shift from the small family farm to the larger corporate farm.

Links

References

1. "Reevesland Becomes 29th Local Historic District," Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, www.co.arlington.va.us//Departments/CPHD/ons/hp/CPHDOnsHpNews04.aspx (last checked May 4, 2006)


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